Though I regard the “medal of freedom” as a rather laughable thing – and would like to think that if I were as famous and inscrutable as Bob Dylan I would not have accepted it – I feel like now is as good a time as ever to say: Bob Dylan is the greatest “rock” songwriter of all-time, the greatest American song-writer of the 2nd half of the 20th century and just perhaps the greatest English language songwriter of the 20th century.
Before Bob Dylan:
- Popular music lyrics were not significant: With the very notable exception of American folk music… Since about the late 1920s, and also excepting the morality tales of traditional folk songs, popular music was about – to paraphrase The Dictators – cars, cars and girls. Popular music was about having a good time: falling in love, drinking, driving, having sex, and making music. Aside from “Strange Fruit” I know of few “social comment” songs outside of American folk music. And folk music was, for the most part, frowned upon by the more financially successful forms of mid 20th century pop music for its seriousness and its rusticity.
- Good poetry only belonged in “art” music: Since at least the mid 19th century composers had been setting poems to “art songs” (and other forms). This was actually a continuation of composers setting biblical passages to short and long works for centuries. Popular music was based in very simple rhymes with little imagery. In the 20th century, this continued unabated. As poetry became freer and even more complex, it was virtually ignored by popular music lyricists. Instead, these lyricists continued to safe, obvious and accessible poetry and imagery that anyone could understand (hence why it was popular).
Dylan did two things with lyrics that drastically changed the possibilities within popular music:
- First, he took the folk song to new levels. He brought in modern poetry and created new levels and layers of meaning within his songs, which otherwise, at least at first, took up traditional folk themes.
- Second, at the same time, he began to bring in themes and concepts from more recent poetry as the motive for his songs (as opposed to the social content motive), completely expanding the world of folk music, to now include any topic conceivable to the imagination.
Both lyrical innovations completely changed pop lyrics and the effect was very noticeable. Within very little time he was covered more than anyone else, and had almost as many imitators as the Beatles.
Yes, Dylan stole melodies, lines and ideas from other people. But who hasn’t? He used these and his own imagination to create the densest and most rewarding lyrics anyone had yet seen in popular music (and arguably as strong as any lyrics yet penned) and, perhaps as importantly, caused most over songwriters to try to do the same. He is without peer.